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Marginal Notes

In Praise of Paper Books

I recently started rereading a book I bought many years ago – one volume of an eight volume set of The Spectator, a London daily periodical from the early 18th century. William Addison and Joseph Steele wrote most of the The Spectator’s 2500-word, witty and wise essays on serious topics of social value. A typical piece warns against the dangers of using “party lying” (i.e. propaganda) to advance a political cause. Another is an extended meditation on eternity. Several offer a serialized and detailed review of Milton’s works.

This may sound like somewhat hard going, but The Spectator is nothing if not eclectic. It includes comic short stories involving a good-natured but dim country squire named Roger de Coverley. You can find parody advertisements a quarter millennium before Saturday Night Live -- for an elocution school for parrots or a dentist who offered to extract teeth from masquerade goers without removing their masks. And in one memorable exchange of letters, a prim young woman named Matilda Mohair wrote to condemn the unseemly practice of young men pushing women on swings as an excuse to catch a glimpse of their legs. Within a week, four other correspondents wrote, claiming to know Matilda and saying she was only objecting because she had crooked legs. One even said she was with child “for all her crooked legs.” It’s an exchange I could easily see happening on Twitter.

The Spectator was wildly popular in its time, with an estimated daily readership, in London’s fashionable coffeehouses and salons, of nearly 20,000 at a time when books were typically printed in lots of 500 or so. Even before the daily issues stopped running, publishers were collecting the essays into an eight-volume set that was reprinted every few years for more than a century. It only began to fall out of favor in the early nineteenth century.

My volume is from a small (octavo) leather-bound, illustrated set from the 1767 London printing. Because The Spectator was so popular, you can still find individual eighteenth-century volumes in good condition for about the cost of a modern hardback. This particular volume played a role in my own life. When my wife and I were courting, I used to read the essays aloud to her. She particularly liked one that explored the value of a garden -- the essayist suggests using evergreens to create a winter garden and recommends using plants native to the area, “such as rejoice in the soil.” (Reading your favorite works aloud is not a bad way to find a soulmate.)

The thing that delights me most about this particular book, though, is the inscriptions written in the flyleaf by the book’s previous owners. One reads, “George R. MacGregor, Dart. College, March 30th, 1841.” The second, “M. M. Magrath, 14 April 1812, HMS Modeste, India.” Another inscription on the title page reads “M. Monk Magrath.”

M. Monk Magrath

I haven’t been able to find out anything else about George, but thanks to the miracle of the internet, I now know the HMS Modeste was a 36-gun frigate, built and launched by the French in 1786, and captured (the French say “stolen”) by the British in Genoa in 1793. It was showing its age when it spent the last years of the Napoleanic wars in the East Indies, hunting down privateers and transporting troops, and it was broken up in 1814. I was also able to find record of an assistant naval surgeon named Miles Monk Magrath, though he was born in 1835. I suspect that would be Miles Junior, the son of my book’s owner, who apparently followed his father both into the navy and into the far east – he's buried in a cemetery in Hong Kong.

Whenever I see the prediction that e-readers will mean the end of paper books, I think of this little quarter-millennium-old volume. Understand, I’m not a Neo-Luddite. E-readers are wonderful devices, offering an infinite bookshelf, often without charge. In fact, the entire run of The Spectator is available for free from both Kindle and Nook. (The “crooked legs” incident can be found in # 496, September 29, 1712.) But paper books, especially used books, still provide a pleasure that an electronic reader can never match – a visceral connection with both the work and with other readers. As I read The Spectator, I can’t help thinking of George taking a break from his studies in the New Hampshire winter or Miles in his cabin at war half a world away from home, holding the same volume I’m holding now and chuckling along with me at Matilda and her crooked legs.

I suspect that e-readers will eventually replace paper books the way self-propelled ships have replaced sailing vessels like the Modeste – never completely, and only where efficiency and expense matter. Nearly all ocean traffic today is carried by ships with motors, but sailing vessels are still out there. Most navies still maintain one or more square-rigged tall ships as training vessels because there is no better way to teach a crew to work together than by having them reef a topsail in a storm. And plenty of cruise lines and museums keep tall ships afloat simply because the joy of sailing in them is like nothing else on earth.

Most of the books that e-readers are going to replace are the cheap paperbacks, with small type, newsprint-quality paper, and bindings that crack the first time they’re opened. The racks of throwaway paperbacks in airports and grocery store checkout lines will probably disappear. But well-made books will survive because the physicality they provide can’t be found with an e-reader. Books are more than just the information they contain. They have heft. They have a particular, delightful scent – two scents, actually, new book or old. They can be loaned to friends, passed on to relatives. And even if you’re reading a brand new book, it’s easy to imagine someone a hundred years or more from now holding that same book and enjoying it just the way you are.

So write your name, date, and place on the flyleaf. You never know who will read it.